There is nothing more fascinating in music than watching a band progress before your very ears. It’s even better when a band’s progression coincides with that band’s improvement. And I can’t believe it, but The Maine has improved a whole ton in a year and a half. I don’t think that a major label can ruin a band by itself, but Black & White, The Maine’s debut for Warner Bros., was a complete dud. Pioneer won’t be as friendly to a mainstream demographic, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the band decided to release the record itself.
One thing is certain here; Pioneer is not only better than Black & White, but it inspires neck-cracking double-takes where you think, “Is this even the same band?” Whereas the group’s last effort was littered with half-hearted attempts at catchy rock music, this album is executed infinitely better, with the tracks landing home at a greater rate. Another thing:Pioneer is actually a real rock record. Sure, it’s still corny as all hell and the lyrics are nothing to be too proud of, but there are guitar solos here that don’t suck, there are melodies that aren’t annoying and oh my goodness, can John O’Callaghan sing. The vocals were never the issue, but the rest of the band has caught up and Pioneer feels twenty times more cohesive than anything else this band has ever put out.
I’ll talk about the album in detail at some point, but another important contrast to Black & White that must be pointed out is hidden in the liner notes of Pioneer. I didn’t even see it until after I wrote the first paragraph of this review, but I’m glad I did – The Maine wrote all of these songs. All songs written by The Maine. The Maine wrote them all. Gone are the mixed bags of co-writers from Black & White. In my review of that album, I wrote this: “Considering the number of co-writers, The Maine don’t appear to be very confident in their own songwriting, and plenty of songs on Black & White support these concerns.” Well, yeah, those songs were pretty bad. But based on Pioneer, maybe it wasn’t the band’s songwriting that was the issue. Maybe it was the confidence or input from outsiders that just didn’t work.
Whatever changed was a positive reaction. “Identify” does well to stand out as an opener; it starts slowly, not trying too hard to catch your attention, but when it does get going, it begs for your ears. There is a bit of a country twang on the opener and throughout the entire record, but everything is primarily rock and roll. O’Callaghan does his best Tom Petty impression more than once, but not everything is that classic-rock. Just take the scratchy guitar solos in “My Heroine” or “Misery” or the closer, “Waiting for My Sun To Shine.” There’s more than a little Weezer mixed in, and other 90s and early 2000s-tinged alt-rock breaks through the surface. You’ve got a touch of Foo Fighters, a touch of Jimmy Eat World and there’s some Third Eye Blind hiding in Pioneer as well. Who saw it coming, but The Maine wrote a rock and roll record.
Not everything is a home run on the 13-track record, though. “Time” is sort of a waste of time (ugh), and “Some Days” is a cool-sounding slow-burner, but I can’t get past the chorus of, “Some days, they taste like lemonade.” It’s a familiar melody, one that any fan of that 90s alt-rock will feel at home listening to, but the lyrics are just a little too weak. “I’m Sorry” makes surprisingly good use of background strings, and O’Callaghan really steals the show; his voice works great for pop songs, but I much prefer it in this setting, even if his delivery isn’t too unique.
The intro and bridge on “When I’m At Home” sounds like a completely different band, delving into a grungier category at times, but definitely not when the sugary chorus kicks in. Elements like the ones on that song have really come out of the woodwork in this band’s writing. “Misery” is the best song on Pioneer, “Jenny” is a slower song that probably could have been left off, and “Thinking of You” is a jumpy pop number that sounds like it was written by a band that Nate Ruess fronts. Don’t forget the best slow song, “While Listening To Rock and Roll,” which channels a lot of Petty, but also a little Springsteen. Again…too corny. But hey, this is way, way better than “She’s fresh to death / She’ll be the death of me.” That song will be the death of me. Pioneer is fucking good.
On that “While Listening To Rock and Roll” ditty, O’Callaghan uses the phrase “mojo music.” Who knows where this guy’s sudden confidence and swagger came from (the word ‘mojo’ always makes me think of the movie Friday Night Lights, and O’Callaghan has some Booby Miles-esque swagger on this here album), but it’s a damn good thing. “Don’t stop listening to rock and roll,” is the refrain in that song. Don’t stop. Can’t stop. Won’t stop. Listen to Pioneer.